Kabakuwo at Lula Lounge
4 July 2011 No Comments
By Anya Wassenberg
Kabakuwo means ‘fantastic’ in the Bamako language of Mali, and there’s no doubt that’s the kind of show the group delivered at Toronto’s Lula Lounge on Thursday night. The club was packed despite the holiday weekend, with the sizeable crowd emerging sweaty and satisfied after a two-hour set.
The music comes from a base of insistent polyrhythms layered over with multiple string patterns, with the vocals rising above the powerful mix. It’s an irresistible force, and the dancefloor was filling up by their second song.
With members that hail from Mali, Senegal and Québec, Kabakuwo plays music rooted in West Africa, including both traditional and original compositions. They sing in Mandingo (also called Mandingue or Mandinka) and Wolof (a Senegalese language,) with one song in French. The Mandinka empire dates back to the 13th century, stretching over large sections of present day West Africa. It left a culture rich in performing arts, including the highly developed musical legacy that Kabakuwo brings into the present day.
The five talented members play ten instruments between them, with Sadio Sissokho on percussion (djembé, sabar, tama), and lead vocals. He sings in the Senegalese style, reminding me at times of world renowned Baaba Maal from the same country. Sadio was born into a clan of musicians, called griots in the West African tradition.
Diely Mori Tounkara and Estelle Lavoie both play guitar and kora, trading riffs back and forth along with adding vocals. The pair is responsible for writing the band’s original material. Diely Mori is brother to legendary guitarist Djelimady Tounkara of Mali’s Super Rail Band and the AfroCubism supergroup project released last year.
Cédric Dind-Lavoie (no relation to Estelle) deftly covers electric bass, double bass and backing vocals. Jean-Sébastien Nicol is a really gifted talent on the drumkit – in this kind of music, a firm rhythmic base is absolutely essential, and he was easily able to hold down the complex patterns. I heard shades of reggae, Latin rhythms and guitar rock threading in and out of the African influences.
The band got together as a quartet without a drumkit when Diely Mori arrived in Canada in 2007. “Dieli would always say, though, ‘we need drummer, it gets people going!’,” Estelle laughed during the break. Jean-Sébastien was added in 2009 and since then, they’ve been playing as a five-piece band with a busy schedule that has included appearances at a raft of music festivals along with club dates.
The bar is set very high in terms of musicianship, all of them able to pull off the polyrhythmic material without breaking into a sweat. Each had a chance to show off their chops in a solo, but true to the tradition, it was Sadio on percussion who took the more flamboyant role.
They played two sets with a 15-minute break in between. Often flowing from one song right into the next, the tempo varied from slow and deliberate to the kind of breakneck speed that sent the dancefloor into a frenzy. Estelle is an accomplished student of African dance herself, and provided some of the fireworks on stage. A few audience members jumped on stage during percussion solos for a dance, and Sadio enticed anyone with talent out of the crowd and into the spotlight.
Virtually the entire club was on its feet for the encore, which included an extended showcase for the dancers in the crowd. That’s the real power of West African musical traditions – it’s about making the audience a partner in the performance.
Anya Wassenberg is a longtime freelance writer with a specialty in arts and culture. Check out her blog www.artandculturemaven.com.